Friday, March 24, 2006

Wine Whine

As mentioned in previous posts, we have a local market chain here in the Eugene-Springfield area called Market of Choice which is a hybrid between a regular small grocery chain and a whole Foods-type store. It carries a large selection of organic produce, free range meat, aned other health foods, as well as homeopathic remedies, etc.

It also, as I've said, has one of the best wine sections around, and a fantastic cheese department. Every store has a cheese steward and a wine steward on staff to assist customers in selecting the right wine or cheese for a given occcasion or meal. One of the things I appreciate about them is that they are happy to bear your budget in mind, and will try to find the right selection within your stated price range -- not to push the most expensive wine or cheese they can on you.

The wine steward at the location nearest our house (the MoC on Franklin, for my local readers) is a young man named Will. and when I say young man, I mean young even compared to my not-that-old age -- he's probably in his late 20's (bobgirrl, I'm looking at you). But despite his youth, the kid knows what the hell he's talking about when it comes to wine. He has recommended numerous wines to me, and not once have I regretted taking his advice. And calling the position wine steward may be a bit restrictive -- he's actually the assistant beverage department manager, and he is just as good at picking beer. If we were ancient Greeks, he'd be favored by both Ceres AND Dyonisius. That's a pretty happy subset of the Pantheon to have on your side.

This past Monday I was in another part of town, and had a limited amount of time to shop, so I stopped at another Market of Choice. One of the things I needed to pick up was a bottle of wine. I intended it to go with the Shrimp Campeche, but we went with margaritas instead, so I ended up serving it with another Mexican meal last night. I spoke to the wine person at this other store, and explained my dilemma: I needed a white wine that would go well with a spicy meal, and my wife thinks Gewurtztraminer (which I consider ideal with spicy food) is too sweet. He recommended a White Burgundy, which he said is essentially a Chardonnay. I told him I try to pick Oregon wines as much as possible, but he assured me that this French wine was superior.

Now, I try to avoid buying French products as much as possible -- I come as close to boycotting France as you can get without actually actively boycotting France. I respect French cuisine, but I believe their government is intentionally charting a policy course to set itself as a foil to US interests, and I am disinclined to financially patronize a semi-hostile nation. But I occasionally relent, and he was adamant that this was the right wine for me, so I bought it. Last night I served it. We had blue corn nachos with black beans, white cheddar, and a Mexican-spiced chicken sausage. I made sure I tried the wine both before and after eating any of the food.

I was unimpressed. It lacked the mellow richness I'm used to from Oregon and California Chardonnays. All I tasted was tartness and up front acid, with maybe a little bit of fruit trying to fight its way through to my taste buds. There was no depth, no complexity. It was boring, and the only redeeming feature was that it contained alchohol. It wasn't even that thirst quenching.

I should have listened to the warning signals in my head when I noticed that he thought it would be better simply because it was French. Look, the French make some great wine, but that doesn't exempt them from occasionally making swill.

Lesson learned: If I'm going to take someone's advice on somehting like wine, I want them to have proven to me their ability in this regard.

My goal in going to culinary school is not only to become a chef, but one day to own my own restaurant. In the past couple of years, as my home cooking has blossomed, I've recognized the importance of serving the right wine with a meal. Hence, I have reached the conclusion that one of my priorities if I ever do have my own restaurant will be to find the right Sommelier -- someone with not only a good knowledge of wine and food, but also someone with whom I establish a rapport, and who shares my vision for the cuisine of the restaurant. And yes, in this case, it will be someone who understands how good Oregon wines can be, and is willing to give them preference.

Why, you ask?

One of the oenological concepts that the French established is terroir, the idea that "the special characteristics of geography tbestowed individuality upon the food product" (to paraphrase from Wikipedia). I used to dismiss the idea, but the more I drink wine, the more apparent it becomes. And I've become convinced that the concept applies to other foodstuffs, not just wine. This has led me to believe that the best wine to pair with food from a given region is wine from that same region. And since my goal is to highlight Oregon food ingredients in my menu, it only makes sense to pair them with Oregon wines. It's not that French wines or California wines or australian wines suck (they don't), it's that they'd be better paired with French or California or Australian foods.

The short term lesson learned is that when I need help picking a wine, I'm going back to the MoC on Franklin and talking to Will.